In his two most recent films director Wayne Wang returns to the themes that have distinguished his career and helped define the possibilities of personal cinema.
“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “The Princess of Nebraska” mark the seventh and eighth of his Asian-themed films that explore the bonds of family and Chinese identity in the modern world made over the last 25 years. These make up one of the largest bodies of introspective work in independent film.
Wang’s career began with “Chan is Missing” (1982), which featured two cabbies searching San Francisco’s Chinatown for “Chan”, a mysterious man who’s disappeared with their dough. Episodic and experimental, the film shook up some of the quick-and-easy stereotypes that audiences may have gleaned from Charlie Chan, the faux-Chinese detective so popular in 1930s American film, and his exotic Chinatown of the Western imagination.
“Chan” was followed by the sweet and tightly framed family drama “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” (1985), in which Geraldine Tam, a dutiful Chinese American daughter, confronts the dilemma of moving out of her mother’s house. While Geraldine doesn’t want to leave her elderly mother alone, she also knows that she must get on with her own life, and maybe finally marry her fiancÃ© – “ because she wants to – not because it’s what is expected of her.
“Chan” and “Dim Sum” both deal with Chinese characters who had been in the United States a generation or more, with their children becoming Americanized, for better or worse. They also established Wang’s dual themes: the complex dynamics of familial relationships and the position of the outsider in search of identity and/or community.
In “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” and “The Princess of Nebraska”, Wang looks at the new Ã©migrÃ©s – “ Chinese who have recently come from Mainland China – to study and to work and sometimes to create a new life.
The two films cover three generations; the elderly who have endured a lifetime of sociopolitical upheavals in post World War II China, their children who grew up after the death of Mao Zedong and during the “making money is glorious” era and the youths brought up with little tradition or history, who have voracious appetites for text messaging and other forms or instant gratification.
Both films were adapted from short stories written by Chinese Ã©migrÃ© Yiyun Li, who won the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award for her volume A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. After reading the stories, Wang was struck by the title story’s similarity to the quality Ozu films he’s admired when he was a film student.
I spoke with Wayne Wang on his latest film A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
ASIANCE: What inspired this movie?
Wang: Over the last ten or fifteen years, if you look at all the different Chinese communities in the U.S., the biggest changes are actually the newer immigrants from China. That’s why I was very interested in those new immigrants. Someone told me about Yiyun Li’s books like, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and I really like that particular short story. A lot of things resonated for me from my own life.
ASIANCE: How was it similar to experiences you’ve had?
Wang: I came over here to go to school like Yiyun Li writes in the story, to learn a new language, become part of a new culture, and I became quite different. So when my father came over 15 years later to stay with us it was a very similar experience. The dinners got more and more painful because there is not much to say and things like that. In the end he had his expectations from a more traditional point of view and I had mine. So the clash of the two cultures and all that became more and more sharp.
ASIANCE: What would modern Asian American women hope to take away from this film?
Wang: I think for the contemporary Asian American woman they kind of have to respect, first of all, the older generation and the older traditions. But at the same time you can’t follow all of it. I think you need to take what is useful and important for you. It could be just one thing or a few things. First you have to understand and respect it instead of fight it and throw it all out but I think once you kind of understand it, you can pick the ones that apply to you or are practical to you. From there, there’s a place to start.
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ASIANCE: What was it like to work with these talented actors?
Wang: Both have a lot of experience. The key actors were Henry Oh and Faye Yu. But sometimes they would tend to maybe do too much as actors. Because, you know, within the Chinese melodrama tradition there is more of that kind of acting. So, a lot of times I was telling them to just think about the character and what they are going through at the time and what the conflict might be at the time and what’s going through their heads, not try to emote so much and let it be more inside them. It’s not just subtlety. Subtlety is important because I hate overacting or unnatural acting. I think the actor really needs to find the character at that moment in a very authentic way and my job is to help them sort of get to that and the rest of it is not so much about showing but about being.
ASIANCE: How did you choose the setting and the film’s unique imagery?
Wang: In the short story it was set in Iowa and I spoke to the writer about it and she said she wanted a very non-characteristic Middle America city. I ended up in Spokane, it’s sort of small city, non descript and very Middle America. A lot of the actors were cast locally and were real people from that city. It was a part of the color of the movie.
ASIANCE: What were some stereotypes broken down in this film?
Wang: There were a lot. The first stereotype is, actually Henry Oh is a very diligent actor- he really worked hard at identifying how someone would speak English badly or how if you were Chinese and spoke broken English what that would be. So to break away from the stereotype of the bad broken English he did something very authentic. So that’s one. Two, I think to portray an older man who is Chinese in a way that doesn’t overdo some of the stereotypes about how they act and believe in superstitions or whatever, those are things we avoided. And her, she is a very modern woman. She’s divorced, having an affair with a married man, so she’s much more complicated than most Chinese American would be portrayed on the screen. She’s not a dragon lady, or a prostitute or a demure passive wife, but much more than that.
ASIANCE: The film has an interesting resolution regarding the conflict of cultures and hope for the future. Is it hopeful in the end?
Wang: There is some hope, you know. Because he says he will travel and maybe come back again. He also asked her to come visit him in Beijing and she is also going to leave that relationship that is not going anywhere. So in a way because of this awkward situation both of them are changed a little bit. So that’s hopeful.
ASIANCE: Do you think the modern young woman character will come to embrace her roots more?
Wang: I don’t know if she will do that as that character. I think she has kind of moved on from a lot of it and has already integrated her own culture and has rejected some old things and some she has accepted because it is part of her subconscious. The fact that she is polite and deals with her father and respects her father is quite a bit of tradition. But in the end she has learned a new language and culture and it is part of her change.
ASIANCE: In the film the father sometimes gives a false image of himself because of past hardships and this is a big theme of the story. How did you choose to portray that representation of self?
Wang: I’m always very interested in how people represent themselves and how much of what people say is fictional to some degree. In his case it’s much more complicated because he was a rocket scientist, but because of something that he did during the Cultural Revolution he was banned from becoming a rocket scientist. But in his own mind he always is, and at the end of the movie he is telling people that. In a way it’s true- it is who he is really.
ASIANCE: What will be your next project?
Wang: What I’m very interested in as a film project is a book that was very popular in England, and republished here now called A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Lucy Guo. She’s a young woman from China who lives in London and it’s kind of autobiographical about her and an older Englishman; it’s very interesting.
For a schedule of the movie and where you can see it, please visit A Thousand Years of Good Prayers